Swiss Accounts

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Swiss Accounts, performed on May 21, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Switzerland’s place in modern history has been exceptional. The nature of that exceptionalism has shifted its character depending on one’s point of view as framed by the historical moment. For example, what is most striking today about the Swiss is their apparent capacity to live in tolerable harmony (albeit not closeness) with one another despite sharp differences in language and religion. Its seems nothing short of miraculous that at a moment when ethnic and religious strife are obsessive barriers to peace in other parts of the world, in Switzerland Catholics and Protestants, Italians and Germans and French, and small communities high up in the mountains who speak the dying and arcane language of Romanche, all manage to maintain a federal democratic republic, transact business, sport a thriving tourist trade, and provide for their fellow citizens sufficiently to avoid extreme poverty and social degradation.

Indeed Switzerland has often been touted as an example of a type of democracy that we might well look at more closely as worthy of emulation. In retrospect one may have wished for the possibility of a Swiss-style solution in former Yugoslavia. That solution involves much greater autonomy for constituent states (the Swiss cantons) and therefore a much weaker federal government. Currently, it may be that Spain is moving toward a Swiss-style federal democracy, in which regions have vast self-governance compared to the American states.

But the multi-ethnic and multi-religious stable little miracle that is Switzerland has its own problems, limitations, and tensions. Jean-Jacques Rousseau idealized his native Geneva and took his place in history as a French philosopher. He was one of many French Swiss figures whose connection to France was far deeper than it was to German Switzerland, that is, to his own countrymen (toward whom many French Swiss have ambivalent feelings). By the same token, among the greatest of nineteenth-century Swiss writers was Gottfried Keller, a major figure in German literature. Of the three major regions of Switzerland, the Italian Swiss have enjoyed comparatively less affluence and prominence. The German Swiss portion has always vied with the French portion for industrial and economic dominance. Although the French Swiss made their mark in the watch-making industry, in finance, and in pharmaceuticals for example, it was the German Swiss, and primarily the radical Protestant Swiss, that advanced in industrial Europe. It is no accident that the MIT or CalTech of Europe is the ETH in Zurich, whose alumni include Albert Einstein. Many of the greatest Swiss, because of the small and insular character of the nation, have made their careers abroad. There are probably more Swiss living outside of Switzerland than within it. Honegger lived most of his life in Paris, and Martin spent considerable time in the Netherlands. Of the composers on today’s concert, only Othmar Schoeck stayed at home.

The Swiss are also historically famous for their hospitality because of their role as innovators in the business of tourism; Switzerland’s reputation as a resort destination has much to do with its mountains, lakes, and legendary scenery. All three Switzerlands participate in this. The Swiss landscape with its sublime mountains and lakes, is also the setting of many legendary stories and events, a magnet especially for the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century intellectual. The novel Frankenstein was written in the shadow of Switzerland and the greatest scene in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain is located there. It was to Switzerland that Liszt fled with his first mistress, Marie d’Agoult.

Switzerland’s reputation as a safe haven and a place for the restoration of health for Europeans also has to do with its long history of so-called political neutrality. Lenin took refuge in Zurich just as Richard Wagner did more than a half-century earlier. The list of émigrés from pacifists to revolutionaries is impressive and includes an endless array of literary and musical figures, such as the aging Richard Strauss. Political neutrality of course survived at the pleasure of the great European powers. The sociologist Max Weber once observed that neutrality in world politics probably cannot exist, and if it does, it is at the price of greatness, ambition, and importance. What have the great powers gained from tolerating a little mountainous landlocked piece of real estate in the middle of Europe? One of the answers rests in the legendary gnomes of Zurich, the banking industry that lent Geneva and Zurich their reputations as financial centers. Swiss banks have made themselves useful as literal depositories of wealth that could neither be traced nor extracted. This tradition was legitimately tarnished by Switzerland’s ambivalent and somewhat compromised relationship to Nazism and Germany during World War II.

The theme of today’s concert suggests that the multi-linguistic and religious heritage of the Swiss made a simple solution to framing national identity through culture difficult. Wilhelm Tell is a Swiss hero, but primarily for the Germans, and he is best remembered as a figure in German literature and Italian opera. The German spoken in Switzerland is broken into a manifold and colorful array of smaller dialects of which the Swiss are justly proud but the rest of German-speaking Europe regards with a mix of wonderment and bewilderment. Even the Swiss have difficulty understanding themselves. Therefore the language of schooling is High German. The French spoken in Switzerland has some unique vocabulary, but for the French Swiss, as Honegger’s career suggests, the center has ultimately been Paris, just as the dominant cultural trends for the German Swiss have come from Germany to the north and Austria to the east. Ironically, before the arrival of conductor Ernest Ansermet to Geneva, the musical culture of that city was dominated by German musical traditions. The Italian Swiss have a prominent role in history for supplying for years the highest percentage of the Papal Guard in Rome. Internal political and cultural allegiances appear to be hard to find among the Swiss except for pride in their unique historical status, love of the land, and a shared sense of exclusivity vis-à-vis everyone else.

What then is Swiss culture? Swiss democracy provides one answer. Despite their differences, the Swiss unite in a remarkable social welfare system and the almost puritanical rejection of wealth as a primary marker of public distinction. The operative principles of democracy, including military service, in Switzerland seem to be what help make the people of that land Swiss. But the generosity and benefits of Swiss democracy have always been severely limited to the Swiss themselves. Swiss neutrality has been maintained at the price of significant xenophobia and hostility to foreigners as anything more than visitors. During the Second World War, Switzerland was not particularly generous in opening its borders to desperate refugees. Individual Swiss citizens committed acts of heroism, but the federal government, dominated by the German cantons, evinced considerable sympathy for the Nazis beginning in 1933. Several of the Swiss cantons had their own police forces dedicated to monitoring foreigners. Citizenship remains impossible to obtain except by inheritance. The benefits of Swiss society work very well for the Swiss, but behind doors that have been tightly closed. Swiss xenophobia has always been apparent in the country’s enormous resistance to new circumstances, such as membership in the United Nations or the European Community. Switzerland was one of the last of the modern states to extend suffrage to women.

And yet one cannot fail to admire Switzerland’s institutions, particularly its schools, museums, nursing homes and hospitals, and the fairness with which access to these institutions is provided to its citizenry. In Switzerland one can still find remnants of direct democracy, town meetings, and regular referenda. But as Rousseau observed more than two centuries ago, the Swiss model probably works because of its small scale with a population that is not too densely distributed. Like England in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Switzerland developed an admirable civic tradition of music making. In the schools and in the home, its heritage of musical institutions thrives to this day and includes fine conservatories and a host of amateur ensembles. The city of Zurich is one of the few cities that still have more than one excellent large retail establishment dedicated exclusively to the sale of instruments and sheet music in the traditions of domestic and classical concert music. New York no longer has any.

Switzerland’s avoidance by its very nature and structure of many of the traps of late nineteenth-century nationalism placed a peculiar burden on its artists. What has been the Swiss contribution to music, literature, and painting? Hermann Hesse, Arnold Böcklin, and Paul Klee were certainly geniuses of their respective arts. One cannot forget the great era of the city of Basel as well, once the professional home of Nietzsche and the Swiss Jakob Burckhardt, a giant in the study of modern history. In music, however, one tends to think of those composers who spent time in Switzerland, rather than native-born and trained composers. Even the great 1895 Tonhalle of Zurich, which Brahms (who lived for a time in Switzerland) helped inaugurate, was designed by Austrian architects in direct imitation of Vienna’s Musikverein.

But precisely because of the diverse and peculiar character of Swiss politics, and the centrality of Switzerland as a temporary home for distinguished transients (including Igor Stravinsky, Georg Solti, and Hermann Scherchen), a foray into Swiss musical life in the mid-twentieth century is an intriguing task. On today’s program we have three representative examples. The first is Othmar Schoeck, who was perhaps the most original composition talent of the twentieth century from German Switzerland. His reputation outside of Switzerland has been compromised not by the quality of his music—he wrote nearly three hundred songs of startling beauty. The American Symphony Orchestra has performed his early Violin Concerto. But he was indisputably a Nazi sympathizer, much like his contemporary Volkmar Andreae, the distinguished conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra. Schoeck was a classic example of the cultivated, civilized, German-centered Swiss, whose “neutrality” did not prevent the deformation of ethical judgment.

On the other extreme is Arthur Honegger, a French Swiss by birth, who became an important part of Les Six and spent his career outside of Switzerland. In stark contrast to Schoeck, Honegger’s political sympathies tended in the direction of communism. The third composer on today’s program is perhaps the most uniquely Swiss, Frank Martin. Like Schoeck, Martin identified with Switzerland, but he was a French Swiss—unencumbered by pro-German politics and more in sympathy with his country as a neutral place, the home of the League of Nations, and the democratic island of civility. Martin’s music boasts a refined eclecticism in its shifts in style. Son of a Calvinist minister, his primary influence was J.S. Bach. Martin’s music deserves to hold a much more central part of the concert repertoire from the twentieth century than it does. Honegger’s place in history was already secured in his lifetime by the admiration of listeners, performers, and colleagues ranging from Cocteau to Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Many people may not even realize that Honegger was Swiss and not French. Martin, in contrast, is suggestive of the cosmopolitan musical culture of Switzerland and the peculiar advantages of being a Swiss artist, the ultimate insider as outsider. Freed from apparent complicity by virtue of citizenship in a neutral country, with the greatest explosions of violence in twentieth-century history, eclecticism did not represent either escapism or compromise as cowardice.

If I may be permitted a personal note: Switzerland extended the privilege of its enigma into my own history. My brother, sister, and I were born in Zurich. My parents lived there for twenty years, as foreign Jews from Poland, beginning with their entrance to medical school until their emigration to the United States. The members of my family who survived owe their lives to the Swiss. But for those twenty years my parents lived on six-month temporary visas and were routinely urged to leave. My mother was even once expelled from the canton of Zurich in the late 1930s and took refuge in Lausanne. Despite devoted and brilliant service to the medical school and the hospitals of Zurich, my parents were never granted the right to practice medicine outside of the university and were repeatedly denied citizenship (although both of them served well beyond the call of duty during the years of Swiss mobilization during the war). My siblings and I all grew up in a household defined by a mixture of nostalgia, admiration, and disappointment. Especially in light of the recent revelation of Swiss collaboration with the Nazis and the abject failure of the Swiss banking industry to honor the claims of survivors on the assets deposited in Switzerland by Jews who perished during the Holocaust, neutrality continues to be a puzzle. Does it indeed really exist? Nevertheless, this concert evokes the overriding sentiment within my family: that of gratitude.